Sunday Thoughts

On what’s turned out to be a restful day, I managed to get out to the Woodland’s Barnes and Noble this morning for a couple of hours.  I did a lot of browsing, even carried several books around with me before finally returning them to the shelves, but bought nothing.  I have to work through the dozens of books I have stacked up at home before bringing new ones into the mix.  It is going to take something really exceptional to get me to spring for it right now…yeah, right.

That’s not to say I wasn’t tempted by All Clear (Connie Wills), a new time travel/historical fiction mix that is getting good reviews; In the Garden of Beasts (Eric Larson), nonfiction about an American family caught in Germany just when it gets dangerous because of Hitler’s rise; Doc (Mary Dorian Russell), a novel about Doc Holliday that I’ve seen reviewed positively by several other bloggers; 2030 (Albert Brooks), a novel of the future by one of my favorite actor/writers; and The German Mujadid (Boualem Sansal), a novel set in Algeria just as Muslim fundamentalism rears its ugly head.  They are all new books except for the Algerian one which was published in 2008.  I spent the largest part of a decade working in and around Algeria, so I am always on the lookout for current fiction from there.  Sometimes, I think, there is more truth in well written fiction than there is in politically correct nonfiction.

I plan to finish Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs today and will have my thoughts about it posted later this week.  That one has pleasantly surprised me, and I’m enjoying it a whole lot more than anticipated.  It’s more than a bunch of essays grouped by subject; it’s a nice, informal, autobiography written in a format that Chabon masters here.

The Barnes and Noble crowd seemed pretty average today.  I did not go down the street to check on what things are like at the nearby Borders store, but the big “sale” does not seem to be much affecting B&N – at least for now.  Of course, these bankruptcy sales are generally a ripoff until very near the end, and sometimes even all the way to the end.  For instance, Circuit City proved to me that an entire bankruptcy liquidation can go by without any real bargains ever showing up for retail customers.

No baseball on television today – which is just as well since the Astros continue to have a liquidation sale of their own.  In the past week, the team has liquidated its three best offensive players (Bourne, Pence, and Keppinger) as new ownership seems to have given up on putting a legitimate team on the field for at least the next two or three seasons.  We have received 10 “prospects” in return for the three players.  Suddenly, the team has no face; it is pretty much a bunch of kids and worn out veterans with nothing much between.  The next two years will see the team get younger and younger and Houston fans will be asked to pay major league prices to watch a Double-A team get wiped out by legitimately-managed franchises.  This is Houston’s 50th major league baseball season – and I have lived and died with the team in all 50.  This is the worst it has ever been for a Houston baseball fan.

The silver lining of that black cloud is that I’ll probably have more reading time now that we don’t have a major league team.  I’ll have the radio broadcasts on in the background but I’m done going to the ballpark until ownership puts a real team in it again.

Banned in Missouri

Are you kidding me?

Here we go again.  This time it’s the combination of a misguided jackass and a politically correct bunch of wimps on a school board that decides to ban Slaughterhouse-Five from a Missouri high school library.  How does this kind of thing keep happening in the 21st century?
CBS has the details, but it boils down to this:

Two books have been banned from the libraries and curriculum at Republic High School after a parent complained that their content taught principles contrary to the Bible.

[…]

[Minor] said “Slaughterhouse Five” contained crude language and adult themes that are more appropriate for college-age students.

Do the folks on this school board even have a clue as to what high school students see, read, and do every day of the week? …and they are worried that Slaughterhouse-Five might not be age approrpriate?  Give me a break.

By the way, two other books were on the jackass’s hit list: Twenty Boy Summer (Sarah Ockler) and Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson).  The only survivor was the Anderson book.  Way to go Missouri, you really showed me something.

So it goes.

Steplings

Steplings is an absorbing coming-of-age novel about Jason, a young man from north Texas whose world seems to be falling apart around his ears.  Although his problems are largely the result of his own poor choices, neither is Jason blessed with the kind of parenting that might have helped him avoid the mess he has made of his life.  His mother has been dead for a few years, and his father has recently married an emotionally brittle, high-powered attorney with an eleven-year-old daughter of her own.  Jason, finding it difficult to adjust to his new home situation, is regularly butting heads with his father and barely speaks to his new “stepling” and her mother. 
As bad as that sounds, Jason’s home life is still preferable to what he faces when he steps outside the house.  Jason’s problems, numerous and crippling as they are, all stem from his impending separation from the only girl he has ever loved.  Lisa’s parents do not consider him good enough for their daughter, and Jason seems determined to prove them right.  If his dropping out of school just two months before graduation did not prove their point, now Jason has a Monday court date to answer assault charges connected to an incident he was too high to understand clearly while it was happening. 
Lisa has decamped for Austin, and the University of Texas, where she will be studying pre-med.  Jason’s former classmates have made plans to get on with the rest of their lives – and he feels abandoned and alone.  When Lisa sends him a classic “Dear John” letter just three days before his court date, Jason knows that if he does not see her soon he will lose her forever.  Hitchhiking to Lisa’s Austin dorm room does not seem like a big deal – until Emily, his new stepling, forces him to take her along so that she can return to her University of Texas professor of a father.  The little road trip will turn out to be a defining moment in the lives of Jason, Emily, and everyone close to them.
C.W. Smith’s characters, including the ones encountered by Emily and Jason on their way to Austin, are fully-fleshed and memorable.  Even though I came to dislike some of them intensely, I could always understand the deluded logic they used to justify their behavior – not that I came to like them any more for it.  It did take me a while to get into Smith’s rhythm but as the relationship between Emily and Jason began to evolve I started to lose myself in the story.  Steplings is, in effect, a dual coming-of-age novel during which two very different young people help each other to grow up.  The 19-year-old high school dropout and the brilliant eleven-year-old little girl make a formidable team.  In the process of making their way to Austin, they learn a lot about each other, themselves, and life.  They grow up – despite the clumsiness of their parents.
Rated at: 4.0

Books-A-Million Deal Fizzles

Turns out that the effort Books-A-Million made to acquire between 30 and 35 of the soon-to-be-closed Borders bookstores was just too good to be true.  It’s not going to happen.

Books-A-Million “had been seeking to acquire all the inventory, fixtures and leaseholds” of its target stores but could not reach an agreement with all the parties involved.  That means that the Lutherville store, along with about 30 others that Books-A-Million was after, will now be liquidated along with the other 370 stores.

Supposedly, Books-A-Million is still hoping to win some of the leaseholds at auction, but it will be a different kind of deal that does not seem to include the inventory or fixtures.

That’s just sad.

Why China Will Never Rule the World: Traveling in the Two Chinas

Troy Parfitt decided to find out for himself if there really is anything to all the media chatter about China’s imminent world domination.  Anyone that pays the least bit of attention to world economics – or goes shopping most anywhere in North America, for that matter – cannot help but get the impression that China is destined to be the world’s next great economy and, soon enough, the world’s new number one superpower. 

Parfitt spent ten years teaching English in Taiwan and considers himself a close observer of the Chinese culture and its people.  He has the ability to speak with the Chinese and to read their newspapers; he knows the country’s history well.  Based upon what he already knew about the country, its people, and its government, Parfitt found it difficult to believe that China was approaching anything near the modern, politically-free state predicted for it.  Curious, he disguised himself as an everyday tourist and spent several weeks traveling the country in search of the truth.  Why China Will Never Rule the World: Traveling in the Two Chinas reveals what he found – and why he believes that China “will never manage to rule the world.”
Why China Will Never Rule the World is, first and foremost, a well written travelogue filled with stories about the people Parfitt meets along the way and the strange circumstances he so often finds himself in.  Parfitt, who is a great storyteller, uses his anecdotes to individualize the Chinese people he meets and to make points about the culture that produced them.  His stories range from heartwarming ones to those certain to appall and sadden the reader, but all of them lead Parfitt to the conclusion that China and its people are far from ready for the role projected for them.  Parfitt describes a country filled with pollution, overall squalor, backwardness, and rampant poverty, a country that is not all that different today from what it was two centuries ago.  As he puts it, “Chinese culture remains locked in a self-replicating state of chaos, myopia, inefficiency, intolerance, violence, and irrationality.  It is, in a word, backward.”
Damning as that observation might be, it pales in comparison to that of another writer, Bo Yang, who said that “the Chinese are afraid of the truth, incapable of introspection or admitting error, and ‘addicted to bragging, lying (considered a virtue), equivocating and slander’…oblivious to the benefits of democracy, civility, generosity, co-operation, and the rule of law, “unaware of the backwardness of their own culture…the same everywhere.’”  From what Parfitt recounts, it seems that little in the essential nature of the country and its culture has changed, even in recent years.
Parfitt believes that China’s future will be defined by its past because, in the Chinese mind, the past, present, and future are forever intertwined.  For this reason, the country will not be easily dragged into “the orbit of global consciousness.”  Neither Bo Yang, nor Troy Parfitt, believes in the “myth” that the twenty-first century is going to belong to China.  Bo Yang puts it down to the fact that China’s culture is simply “too primitive” to claim ownership of the new century, that the people suffer especially from the ingrained flaw of “being dishonest with themselves and others.”  He believes that the country’s greatest flaws are “dishonesty” and “infighting,” either of which, alone, would hobble any country with the supposed aspirations of China.  Nothing Parfitt describes of his travels would lead one to believe differently.  In the end, whether you agree with Parfitt, or not, this one will make you think.
Rated at: 4.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

My Faith in the Innate Goodness of People Takes a Hit

I am exhausted right now – and still a little bit in shock, I think – because of today’s office experience.  I keep reminding myself that this is a Monday but, even by Monday’s standards, this is a day I will never forget.

Let me set the scene for you.  I run a pretty small department for my company – and my key employee is expecting her fourth child.  Knowing that she has had to take early leaves of absence for two of her three children already, I began planning for the blessed September event in March.  I hired a contractor to come in that early to learn every detail of what SR does for me.  The lady I hired is bright, personable, and a very quick study.  She was doing so well that the thought crossed my mind last night that I was in complete control of the situation, that it would be a smooth transition from SR to MB when that time came.

So today I came into the office, after two days off at the end of last week, only to receive a phone call from MB telling me that she had to make an unexpected visit to her doctor and would not be in today.  Thirty minutes later I received a phone call from one of our HR reps to tell me that MB’s temp agency had sent someone to the office to immediately begin working on finding a replacement for MB – that she left a message with them on Friday evening about coming in to my office this morning to give me two weeks notice.  They were upset, and it got worse when I told them about her phone call.  We discussed getting someone in as quickly as possible so that SR could squeeze in as much training as possible.

Do you see where this is going?

Yep, at two p.m. I received an email from SR telling me that she was heading straight home from her doctor: she has been restricted to bed rest for the duration of her pregnancy.  Six hours, six measly hours, and my plans were trashed.  I’m still in shock at the irony of losing both women on the same day.  One was expected, but the other should not be happening right now.  The timing was so spectacular that I’m still shaking my head in disbelief.

I have to tell you, too, that my trust in human nature has taken a hit.  MB was hired with the explicit understanding that she would not leave before SR returned.  She knows very well that bailing out on me at this point is a killer that the department cannot possibly recover from – she knows it but does not care one little bit.  And people wonder why companies have less loyalty to the employee than in the old days?  It’s a two-way street, MB, and you are driving on the wrong side of that street.  

Juliet, Naked

Nick Hornby, in Juliet, Naked, returns to the world in which many of his fans met him for the first time: that of pop music and the music’s obsessed super-fans.  Readers of High Fidelity will certainly feel comfortable with the setting and characters of Juliet, Naked, but there is a twist to the story this time.  Unlike in High Fidelity, which focused on a group of young pop culture fanatics, the main characters in this 2009 novel are old enough to know better.  But they don’t often act like it.
Tucker Crowe is an American musician who went into self-chosen exile just a few months after creating Juliet, an album that has become a cult classic – in large part, of course, because of its association with Crowe’s disappearance.  Twenty years later, he is said to be living alone on a farm, so successfully isolated that not even a decent picture of him has been seen in all that time. 
Duncan and Annie, in the meantime, are living their own lives in a lifeless little English seaside town.  The two are not married, but have been together for fifteen years, so Annie has grown accustomed to Duncan’s preoccupation with Tucker Crowe and Juliet.  Annie, for her part, has heard the songs from Juliet so many times that they have become part of her life, too, but she is not part of the Tucker Crowe cult that has grown up around the album.  Duncan, on the other hand, considers himself to be the founding member of that cult.  He spends hours every day listening to the music and discussing Tucker Crowe sightings and rumors on the internet with the group that meets there every day.
Things get complicated when Duncan mysteriously receives a bootlegged copy of Juliet, Naked – a basic, stripped-down version of the songs on Crowe’s masterpiece album, Juliet.  Duncan not only shares the music with the Tucker Crowe cult, he posts a gushing review of the new songs in which he claims they are even better than the commercial version of Juliet.   It is Annie’s reaction to the stripped-down songs, however, that will forever change the lives of her, Duncan, and Tucker Crowe.
Juliet, Naked, at its heart, is a book about second chances.  Even Tucker Crowe, himself, admits to himself that he is pretty much a failure.  Multiple marriages have produced children he barely knows, and his current marriage (one that has given him a six-year-old son he adores) seems to be doomed.  Tucker has not worked at his music, or anything else, since he walked away from it all.  He knows there has to be more to life, and he is ready for it.  Annie, fast approaching middle age and yearning for a baby, is beginning to regret the fifteen years of her life she may have wasted on Duncan, a man pretty much content with the life they have.
When fate, with a big assist from the Internet, contrives to bring the three face-to-face, Tucker, Annie, and Duncan find that they have a lot to learn about each other – and, more importantly, about themselves.

Books-A-Million Wants 30 of the Borders Bookstores

Supposedly/theoretically, the big liquidation “sale” at the 399 still-open Borders bookstores begins today.  Now it appears there is a chance that some 30 of the stores just might remain open after the smoke has cleared.

According to the Washington Post, rival bookseller, Books-A-Million, has a bid in place that, if accepted, would keep selected stores open in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Ohio, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

It’s not exactly White Knight news, but 30 of 399 stores is a lot better than losing all of them, especially to the readers in those 17 states lucky enough to keep one or two stores open.  Pennsylvania seems to be the big winner with 8 stores potentially being rescued.

Keep your fingers crossed.

The Keeper of Lost Causes – Book Trailer

Back on May 9, I reviewed a book called The Keeper of Lost Causes based on an e-book review copy that I obtained from the publisher sometime in April.  Well, that book is going to be published in the U.S. on August 23, so I think it is appropriate for me to repost my May 9 thoughts along side this new book trailer promoting the release.

First is the book trailer:

I think the trailer does an excellent job of setting the mood of this story and giving a flash of insight into what it’s all about.

Here’s what I had to say in May:

The best writers of crime fiction, those whose work is translated into a dozen or so languages every time out, have a way of reminding the reader of just how much we all have in common. These authors do not settle for writing a series of formulaic whodunits. They, instead, develop complex, imperfect characters whose personal side-stories are often as interesting as the mystery within which they are intertwined – and they use setting as if it were another main character. In recent years, so many Scandinavian and Icelandic crime thriller writers have found success in the U.S. that they have carved out their own little subgenre. Now, it is time to welcome Danish writer Jussi Adler-Olsen, author of The Keeper of Lost Things, to the club.

Chief Detective Carl Morck was one of Copenhagen’s finest policemen for a long, long time. That all changed on the day that Morck and his two partners were ambushed at the scene of a murder they had just begun to investigate. When the shooting finally stopped, one cop was dead, one was paralyzed, and Morck blamed himself for letting it happen. Now finally back on the job, Morck is so grumpy, cynical, and uncooperative that no one, including his direct superiors, really wants to work with him. So, spying the opportunity to get rid of Morck by promoting him to a dead end job while, at the same time, locking in a larger departmental budget for themselves, the higher-ups jump all over it.

Thus does newly created Department Q, a one-man, cold-case shop located deep in the department’s basement, become Carl Morck’s baby. Only after tiring of reading magazines and working Sudoku puzzles (and learning about the extra money allocated to the department on his behalf), does Morck demand that someone be hired to make coffee and organize the departmental files. He gets more than he bargains for in Hafez al-Assad, a political refugee from somewhere in the Middle East who seems to think that he has been hired as an investigator, not as a broom-pusher.

When, as much to humor Assad as anything else, Morck agrees that they should study a five-year-old file involving the disappearance of a prominent Danish politician, he is surprised that the case actually captures his interest. Merete Lynggaard was a beautiful woman with unlimited political upside when she disappeared from her holiday ferryboat but, despite her high profile, no trace of her was ever found and it has been assumed that she either fell or jumped to her death. The more Morck learns from the file, the less he is impressed by the original investigation into the woman’s disappearance. Might she still be alive after all this time?

The Keeper of Lost Causes is a definite thriller, a real race against the clock in every sense, but its particular strength is in the unusual relationship it portrays between Danish detective Carl Morck and mysterious Middle Eastern refugee Hafez al-Assad. Morck is a burned-out cop and Assad is a man who was hired for his coffee-making and janitorial skills – but together they add up to something much greater than the sum of their parts. They become one of the most effective, and one of the most entertaining, crime fighting teams in modern crime fiction. This one is fun.

Rated at: 4.0

Review Copy provided by Publisher

If you are a fan of “Scandinavian and Icelandic” crime writing, but have not checked into the work of Jussi Adler-Olsen, think about putting this one on your wish list.

The Things We Cherished

The Things We Cherished is an interesting piece of historical fiction centering on a war crime committed during World War II, a crime that cost the life of the alleged war criminal’s brother, as well as the lives of several hundred Jewish children he was on the brink of saving.  Now, more than six decades later, Roger Dykmans, the man accused of betraying his own brother, is refusing to defend himself against the accusations of those who believe he should be imprisoned for the remainder of his life.
Charlotte Gold, a Philadelphia public defender, is startled one morning to find her longtime ex-lover waiting for her inside her drab office.  Despite being a bit dismayed by both her physical and her emotional reactions to the man, Charlotte finds herself agreeing to help Brian build a defense for Roger Dykmans.  However, upon her arrival in Germany to work on the case, Charlotte finds that she will be spending much more time working with Brian’s estranged brother, Jack, than she will be spending with Brian. 
As Charlotte and Jack begin the research that will see them searching the old man’s childhood home for evidence that would prove him innocent, the novel settles into a series of flashbacks that conclude at the time of the crime that Roger Dykmans is accused of having committed.  At the heart of the story is an antique anniversary clock that changes hands every decade or two, until it rests, finally, with the Dykmans family.  In separate flashbacks, we witness the clock being constructed by a simple farmer who learned the trade from his father, and follow it as it passes from one loving couple to the next for most of the next century. 
Ultimately, the anniversary clock will determine the fate of Roger Dykmans. 
The Things We Cherished, as plotted by Pam Jenoff, works; it has a story to tell, and it gets the job done.  I do, however, think it would have worked even better if less attention, and fewer pages, had been given to the budding romance between Charlotte and Jack.  While it is true that the modern romance uncannily mimics the World War II romance experienced by Roger Dykmans, it does little to advance the story other than to emotionally bond Charlotte to the old man.  The Things We Cherished would have been much stronger if it had been constructed as a novel of historical fiction with elements of romance thrown into the mix.  As it is, it reads more like a romance novel with some historical fiction thrown in for good measure.  That is not as close to the same thing as it might sound.
Rated at:  3.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Borders Is Jilted at the Altar

So it is all going to end with an embarrassing whimper as Borders Books is left standing at the altar all alone, wondering why the handsome love of its life did not show up to formalize the relationship that would have made both of them so happy?

How terribly sad that is – and I say that as someone who has not purchased a book from Borders in at least five years.  Even though I only visited a Borders Bookstore two or three times a year, I suspect that I will miss them more than I ever imagined I might.  Think about it for a second.

Suddenly, Barnes & Noble has no real neighborhood, on the ground, competition.  Simple economic theory tells me that cannot be a good thing for the consumer, nor for the landlords all across the country that get stuck holding all of that empty square-footage of empty retail space.  It is certainly a bummer for almost 11,000 Borders employees who will soon be joining the long, long unemployment line.  (Not a whole lot more than 11,000 jobs were created in the whole country last month – losing 11,000 of them in one swoop has to have the President, if he’s paying attention, frowning a little bit tonight.)

But, you’re right.  That kind of thing (except for maybe the B&N reaction to the demise of so much competition) doesn’t really impact most of us directly.  So think about it another way:

Miles and miles of bookshelf space are gone.  Publishers have lost a major market for their books, and shoppers have lost another place to browse through the thousands of books they would have never heard of, or seen, if not for those bookshelves.  Say what you want, but book-browsing on the internet, no matter what e-bookstore one patronizes, is a poor substitute for flipping through the pages, of book after book, that grab your attention as you wander the aisles of a good-sized bookstore.  Imagine, if you can, how many more books are going to slip through the cracks now.

Does that mean that publishers will take fewer risks than ever with new authors?  Does it mean fewer titles published each year?  Does it mean less choice for you, the reader?  Will publishers lay off thousands of their own workers now, those they needed to service the demand provided by Borders?  Does it mean that bestseller lists will become even more embarrassing than they already are?  Yes, to all of the above.

Short-term winner is probably Barnes & Noble.  Longer-term, it is more likely to be Amazon.com, a company that seems more and more destined to become the only major bookstore owner left in the country, if not the world.

What a terrible day for book-lovers everywhere.

Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death

I first read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five as a very young man.  At the time, I was an avid fan of science fiction, especially those books featuring time travel, and that is what drew me to Slaughterhouse-Five.  As a science fiction novel, I thought it was pretty good, especially considering the amount of random time travel its main character, Billy Pilgrim, experiences in this relatively short novel.  The problem with my first-pass assessment of Slaughterhouse-Five, however, was that this is not simply a science fiction novel – and it should not be judged by the standards of that genre.  Even worse, I managed to ignore the novel’s message.
Vonnegut’s deceptively simple masterpiece is about life itself; it is about the futility and utter waste of warfare; it is about time, and the way that we perceive it; it is about fate and whether any of us really has any control over what happens to us next.  Poor Billy Pilgrim certainly had little to say about the course of his own life.  Swept up into World War II, where he is captured by the Germans almost as soon as he arrives, Billy will be held prisoner in Dresden’s Slaughterhouse-Five, from where he will survive the Allied firebombing that destroys the entire city.  He will be abducted by a crew of aliens from the planet Tralfamador and displayed in a zoo there along with the former porn star chosen as his mate.  He will become a successful optometrist, popular and respected in his community.  The only problem is that it all happens at the same time.
Billy Pilgrim has become “unstuck in time” and he never knows, from one instant to the next, when he will flash forward or backward to a different part of his lifetime.  It is all real, and it is always happening – simultaneously.  
Slaughterhouse-Five is generally considered to be a classic anti-war novel.  Even with that reputation, its message is subtle enough that it is possible to get so caught up in the rest of the story and its mechanics that the novel’s serious theme is only recognized some time after turning its final page.  This book is funny, even to the point of being absurd at times, but it is a serious piece of writing by an author with something serious to say about the foolishness of killing “enemies” by the thousands/millions at the behest of politicians who have failed at their own jobs. 
The effectiveness of Slaughterhouse-Five is compounded by the ease with which it can be read; Vonnegut has disguised a complex novel, one filled with thoughtful points, as some kind of comedic science fiction piece.  And, he makes it all look so easy.  (As does Ethan Hawke in his extraordinary reading of the novel.)

Dogsbodies and Scumsters Video

I reviewed an unusual book last month called Dogsbodies and Scumsters, a book of short stories that also included even shorter pieces inspired by the concepts of an illustrator.  The drawings are weird and tricky, to say the least, and the little segments based on them cannot help but be every bit as strange.

I found it a bit difficult to explain the concept and feel of the book in my original review, so I was happy to find this YouTube video that captures its mood very well:

Started Early, Took My Dog

Jackson Brodie is still at it.  By Started Early, Took My Dog, Kate Atkinson’s fourth Jackson Brodie novel, Brodie considers himself to be, at the least, a semi-retireddetective, but he is still out there searching for the truth.  The big change in Brodie’s routine today is how he combines his personal search for the woman who defrauded him of most of his substantial inheritance with whatever case he might be working at the time.
A lucky convergence of circumstances finds Brodie in Leeds, his hometown, where he is hoping to get a lead on his ex-companion’s whereabouts while, at the same time, he is searching for the natural parents of a young woman who contacted him from Australia asking for his help.  Jackson Brodie, we learn, has two soft spots: children and dogs; both play prominent roles in Started Early, Took My Dog.
Atkinson has written another multi-layered mystery, one that opens like an onion until the truth is finally revealed.  She uses multiple flashbacks to 1975, the year that Hope McMasters, Brodie’s Australian client, was adopted and moved from Leeds to her new home.  What Brodie learns about the horrible 1975 death of a Leeds prostitute and the child who survived alone with her dead body for three weeks, has him certain that he is on the right track.  That, the more he digs, the more serious the personal threats to him become, ensures that Brodie will keep pulling at threads until the mystery reveals itself to him.
Started Early, Took My Dog is full of memorable characters, not the least, being  a newly expanded version of Jackson Brodie, himself.  Brodie seems ready to admit to himself that his problems center almost entirely on just two things: his abuse of alcohol and an inability to judge a woman’s true character.  His newly found self-awareness is gratifying to see.  Playing a central role in Brodie’s investigation is Tracy Waterhouse, a retired police detective currently making her living as a Leeds mall cop.  Tracy takes pride in the security service she supervises for the mall, but surprises herself one day by giving in to an impulse that will completely change who she is.  Perhaps the most affecting character in the novel is Tilly, an aging movie actress who is suffering from dementia to the degree that she is beginning to confuse her television role with real life.  Atkinson does a remarkable job of portraying Tilly’s world through the woman’s eyes.
Kate Atkinson’s novels are complicated and, as often as not, they are remembered and lauded as much for their style as for their storyline.  That is likely to be the case with Started Early, Took My Dog, as well.  Its plot is not particularly unusual or startling in resolution, but it is a very fine character study structured in a way guaranteed to keep the reader turning its pages to the end.
Rated at: 4.0

Slaughterhouse-Five: Book vs. Movie

After stumbling across it on NetFlix, I stayed up late last night watching the 1972 film version of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.  It was an interesting experience because I just finished re-reading the book earlier this week and its details were still fresh in my mind.

I was happy enough with the way the scriptwriters (Vonnegut, among them) adapted the book to fit the big screen, but was once again reminded of how much more powerful a book almost always is when compared to its movie cousin.  Slaughterhouse-Five, the movie, is more notable for what it left out of Billy Pilgrim’s story than for any major changes it made to the book’s contents.  What you see in the movie is pretty much what you read in the book, with a few relatively minor exceptions.  For instance, in the book, Edgar Derby is executed for stealing the teapot he found in the firebombed ruins of Dresden; in the movie, it is for stealing a small figurine that reminds him of home.  Same result, different device to get there – perhaps changed simply to justify Derby’s theft via his homesickness.

There are so many things missing from the movie, that it is difficult to know where to begin.  Let’s start with the fact that the movie focuses only on the Billy Pilgrim part of the story, and does not address the idea that in the book, Pilgrim’s story is a novel within a novel.  Also omitted from the movie is Kilgore Trout, the science fiction writer Billy learns to love while in the hospital recovering from the trauma he experienced in World War II (a man Billy later befriends).  I wish, too, that the movie had included the scene in which Billy comes unstuck in time while watching an old war movie and ends up watching it run backward – a beautiful experience as the bombs, smoke, and flames appear to be sucked back up into the bombers and carried away (it even appears as if the bombs are taken back into factories where they are dismantled and disposed of safely).

But what I missed most of all was the narrator’s observational phrase, used at dozens of key points in the novel: “so it goes.”  That would have made an excellent punctuation point for many of the scene breaks in the movie, but since no narrator is used in the film, those words were never heard.  And what a great opportunity was missed when the director and scriptwriters did not end the movie the same way the novel ends: with a little bird saying “poo-tee-weet.”

Slaughterhouse-Five, the movie, is another example of how, against all odds, the written word is indeed more powerful than cinematic images.  This is true even for a relatively slim book like Slaughterhouse-Five.  While I did enjoy both the book and the movie, I doubt I would have enjoyed the movie nearly as much without first having read the book; the opposite cannot be said.

Unintentional Catch-UP

I just this second realized that for the first time in YEARS, I am not in the midst of reading at least one book.  In fact, I can’t remember the last time this has happened.  I usually read three or four at a time, a way of ensuring that I can always pick up something and jump in right where I left off.  I have been slow, though, to start anything new this week when I finished one.  So, in the last two days, I’ve finished the only two I still had going (the last, over lunch today)… and suddenly there’s not one to reach for.  You know, that is actually a strange feeling for me.

Not a big problem – I’ll just start three or four from the stack of dozens awaiting my attention…but I experienced a strange, though momentary, feeling of “loss.”  Yes, I know, that’s weird.

Long Gone

Although Long Gone is Alafair Burke’s seventh novel, it is her first standalone thriller.  Not coincidentally, mostly because I have an aversion to starting a fiction series I was not aware of very early on, this is my first experience with an Alafair Burke novel.  It will not, however, be my last.
Alice Humphrey, the heroine of Long Gone, comes from money.  Her father is a still-famous Oscar Award winning movie director and her mother is the actress who retired from films after marrying him.  Even Alice, as a former child actress, is still considered somewhat of a celebrity.  But hard times have come to Alice’s New York City lifestyle – she has been unemployed for way too long, and moving back in with her parents is a short-term solution, at best.
When, out of nowhere, Alice is offered what seems to be her dream job, managing her own art gallery, she only hesitates for a moment before accepting the stranger’s offer.  There is, however, one major catch: once every quarter or so she will be required to show the rather weird artwork produced by the young boyfriend of the gallery’s elderly owner.  Figuring that she can work around that part of the deal, Alice takes the job.
All goes well at first, including the first exhibit of her patron’s chosen artwork, which begins to sell surprisingly well on the Internet after the gallery’s opening night show.  But everything is snatched from Alice in a flash on the morning she comes in to open the gallery and finds it empty of every stick of furniture and artwork that had been there when she left the night before.  All she can find is a dead body: the man who hired her to run the gallery.
Suddenly, Alice is again out of work.  Much worse, she is now an out of work murder suspect.
Author Alafair Burke
Long Gone is full of twists and curves that leave Alice and the reader wondering if anyone can be trusted.  Whose side is the concerned FBI agent really on?  What is Alice’s father hiding?  Does the trusted family lawyer know more than he is willing to discuss with Alice?  Just who are the mystery artist and his billionaire benefactor, and why did they choose Alice for the job?  Is someone framing Alice for murder in order to get even with her father?
Alafair Burke has created a world in which very little is really as it appears to be.  She has populated that world with a cast of characters guaranteed to intrigue and confuse the reader even as the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place.  Do not get over confident – because there are twists and surprises to the very end.  Pay attention, dear reader; this is not one of those thrillers you can read while watching “Dancing with the Stars.”
Rated at: 4.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

July Birthdays

Thomas Berger

This afternoon I found myself browsing through the desk calendar I keep in my home office.  That’s not something I do a lot of, despite the fact that I always try to keep a book-oriented desk calendar around – this year it’s the Barnes & Noble 2011 Desk Diary: Book of Days.  Half-way through the year, I can say that this has turned out to be one of my favorites, and that I’ll be looking for the 2012 version for next year’s blog notes, book logs, etc.

What I noticed this afternoon is that the month of July is a pretty awesome month for author births.  Take a look at this list:

July 1, 1892 James M. Cain

July 2, 1877 Herman Hesse

July 3, 1883 Franz Kafka

July 4, 1804 Nathaniel Hawthorne

July 8, 1913 Walter Kerr

July 12, 1933 Donald E. Westlake

July 17, 1889 Erle Stanley Gardner

July 18, 1937 Hunter S. Thompson

July 20, 1924 Thomas Berger

July 21, 1899 Ernest Hemingway

July 23, 1888 Raymond Chandler

July 26, 1856 George Bernard Shaw

Jul7 28, 1927 John Ashbery

July 29, 1905 Stanley Kunitz

Not too shabby a list, that.  July seems to have been particularly kind to mystery writers, including four of the giants of the genre in its ranks: Cain, Westlake, Gardner, and Chandler.  What surprises me most is the year in which those four were born, especially considering how cutting-edge Cain and Chandler seemed to be to me even when I was reading them for the first time in the ’60s.  And who would believe that the man who invented Perry Mason was born all the way back in 1889?  Considering how late into the twentieth century that show was on television, it hardly seems possible.

July also blessed us with one of my favorite writers, Thomas Berger, a writer perhaps still best known for Little Big Man (but my personal favorite of his is one called The Houseguest, a very strange book, indeed).  And who could quarrel with a month that produced Kafka, Hesse, Hemingway, and Shaw?

Confession time: Hunter Thompson bores me to tears, so that’s minus one point for July.  And, quite frankly, I can’t place Kerr, Ashbery, or Kunitz – that’s minus three points for me.  Also, it appears that Barnes & Noble pretty much only note “old school” authors, with very, very few of the featured writers having been born after 1950.  Perhaps, next year, B&N should put out a “modern author” desk diary as an alternative to this one.  (On a side note, I saw that  Beverly Cleary is 95 years old!)

All in all, I suspect that July will be hard to beat as a birthday-month for authors.

The Mighty Walzer

The Mighty Walzer is a coming-of-age novel served to American readers with a whole lot of backspin.  That is because Oliver Walzer, hero of Howard Jacobson’s The Mighty Walzer, did his growing up in 1950s Manchester, England – specifically in a part of Manchester predominately populated by Jewish families like his own. 
If shyness could kill, Oliver Walzer would never have reached puberty.  That he did reach puberty, although he did not do a whole lot with the opportunities inherent to that stage of life, and go on to have a fairly “normal” life almost seems like an accident now, even to Oliver.  The first accident was that he found a competition-grade Ping-Pong ball and brought it home with him one day.  The second, was his discovery, by banging that ball off a wall with his hardbound copy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that he was a Ping-Pong natural. 
Ping-Pong, and his father’s insistence that Oliver use his unusual skills to meet other players ( as a way of  forcing him out of the house for his own good), would be Oliver’s ticket to the rest of his life.  Suddenly, he was among like-minded people who came to accept him as one of their own; he had teammates; he learned to at least talk a good game about women, even though he seldom practiced his skills in that arena; and he had a goal: to become a world champion Ping-Pong player.  Well, that’s the good news, because I’m making Oliver’s transition to adulthood sound a whole lot easier than it was.
Author Howard Jacobson
The odds were against Oliver from the start.  Surrounded by a gaggle of sexually repressed aunts who loved to give him baths, it is little wonder that the little boy would himself be sexually confused.  Witness his habit of cutting headshots of his aunts and pasting them onto the bodies of women in the  risqué photos he spent hours visiting in the family’s one bathroom.  But grow into a man Oliver does, and Howard Jacobson makes it an interesting, if somewhat frustrating transition (even for the reader, who is likely to want to shake some common sense into Oliver, or other family members, on more than one occasion). 
That Jacobson often uses 1950s British slang and Yiddish references in the conversation between his characters might be off-putting to some, but this adds an authenticity to the conversations that would otherwise be missing – and it becomes easier and easier on the reader as he develops an “ear” for the unusual words and phrases.  Imagine Philip Roth “squared” and you will have the right first impression of The Mighty Walzer.
Rated at: 4.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

And Then There Is San Jose’s Seven Trees Library

…completed last fall in a city that cannot afford to hire the librarians that would make it possible to open the library’s doors.  In fact, according to this New York Times article, Seven Trees is one of four new San Jose libraries (totaling some 68,000 square feet of floor space) that remains closed due to the city’s budget restraints.

…the product of a bond measure that passed in 2000 at the height of the Internet bubble. None of the libraries currently have a budget to hire employees.


Still, Seven Trees’ shiny two-story building, which includes a first-floor community center that opened in October, attracts a steady stream of would-be library patrons.

This is where the good news enters this library story.  The “Friends of the Seven Trees Library” have taken on the unusual role of administering an “unofficial” loan program with the donated books collected by the group.  Rather than selling the books, the Friends are, in effect, running their own little library system.

Now Ms. Hashii, a retired library clerk, keeps a mental list of her readers’ needs as she sorts donations. A man with white hair and thick glasses says he is on the lookout for large-print books. Mothers come to read with their children on the one folding chair in the little space, so Ms. Hashii looks for more picture books. A Spanish-speaking woman is teaching herself to read and has asked for easy Spanish books.


“It’s something the community really seems to be taking to,” Ms. Hashii said.

There is still hope in a world in which the average citizen manages to circumvent the failures of government officials, local and national. But what a waste to let these buildings sit empty and unused like this. Why didn’t some of those billions of dollars in stimulus money go to create jobs like these instead of being wasted the way it all apparently was by being thrown into some black hole that failed miserably to create a meaningful number of new jobs of any type?